Chinatown North Social Practice Lab

Asian Arts Initiative

Funding Received: 2012
Philadelphia, PA
Funding Period: 1 year and 5 months
April 5, 2013

Asian Arts Initiative is a multi-disciplinary community-based arts center in Philadelphia. The organization’s current programs include a public performance season, a gallery exhibition series, artist residencies, and youth workshops that focus on telling the stories of Asian Americans and the diverse communities of which Asian Americans are a part. Prompted to relocate due to the expansion of the Pennsylvania Convention Center five years ago, Asian Arts Initiative is now in a new home at 1219 Vine Street, and developing its building as a multi-tenant facility to serve as an anchor in the development of the Chinatown North neighborhood. 

ArtPlace’s grant will support Asian Arts Initiative to renovate the third floor of its building to create more artist studio space, as well as support the inaugural year of a Social Practice Lab through which Artists-in-Residence will work in partnership with a diversity of residents and neighborhood organizations to create projects – which could be at public sites including storefront windows, restaurant tables, an outdoor plaza, a viaduct tunnel, a parking lot—and contribute to shaping the vision of the neighborhood’s future.

ArtPlace interviewed Gayle Isa, Executive Director of Asian Arts Initiative, who first became active in Chinatown through working on a documentary film about the community’s organizing efforts when a federal detention center was proposed in the neighborhood in 1993.

ARTPLACE: How will the work you've begun be sustained after your ArtPlace grant?  Have new options for sustainability emerged during the grant period?  Will this work live beyond the grant period?  How has this work affected the work you will do beyond the grant period?

To be honest, it’s a pretty big challenge to figure out how programming that’s been made possible by a one-time grant as significant as ArtPlace can be sustained. I feel fortunate that ArtPlace has allowed us to utilize a portion of the grant toward capital renovations, helping to further develop our building as a multi-tenant arts facility that serves as an anchor for the growth of the Chinatown North neighborhood. The balance of the ArtPlace grant has enabled us to launch our Social Practice Lab and host a cohort of seven Artists-in-Residence for a full year of learning about different aspects of our neighborhood, and carrying out artistic projects that will culminate in September 2013.

We are actively seeking funds that would allow us to continue to host Artists-in-Residence in our neighborhood on an ongoing basis. Simultaneously, we are also working with each of our current Artists-in-Residence and encouraging them to think about means of documenting the work that they are doing, as well as how their projects might have a life and/or an impact on our neighborhood beyond this year. Some of them will be accomplishing this by sharing skills – storytelling, visual arts, radio production, and through some projects group facilitation and decision-making – which community members can continue to use. Others will be building physical objects, and as part of their project goals will be identifying local community partners who can care for those objects and ensure a longer-term presence in the neighborhood.

Another way in which the artists’ work, and ours as an organization, will continue is through the relationships that are being built. I think Asian Arts Initiative is particularly lucky (and smart) to have fostered our Local Resource Team of representatives from a range of neighborhood organizations, many of whom already knew each other but most of whom are learning more about each other’s perspectives and, I believe, becoming more invested in a shared vision for working together in our neighborhood. Several Local Resource Team members have already commented on how the experience has affected them, and a couple of them have begun collaborations with each other independent of the assignments we have given them or the advice that we have asked for.

I’ve also been inspired by an example that was shared by artist Rick Lowe, one of our project advisors, from a short-term residency (two or three weeks) in which he facilitated a community meeting to generate suggestions and ideas for the community’s betterment. Without enough time during the residency to implement any of the suggestions, he published them as a “Book of Ideas” which was then given back to the community. What moved me most about the simple-sounding project is how, in a follow up visit, he heard from other community members that they had read the book and were taking responsibility for carrying out some of the ideas of their own accord. That would be my hope for the kind of action that Asian Arts Initiative and our Social Practice Lab can catalyze within our community as well.